Why Poor Sleep Could Be Causing Your Digestive Issues—And Vice Versa

It is widely known that sleep has a clear and direct impact on overall health. From decision-making skills to heart disease to skin elasticity, your sleep habits play a major role in all aspects of your health and wellness. Now, newer research is adding to that list by examining the link between sleep and digestion. Studies have shown this relationship to be both complex and circuitous: lack of sleep can exacerbate existing gastrointestinal issues—and gastrointestinal issues can make it more difficult to get the sleep you need. So what does this mean for people who suffer from GI problems? And what can they do about it?

According to a 2007 review published in the Sleep journal, surveyors with insomnia reported more gastrointestinal problems than those that did not have trouble sleeping. At the same time, respondents with gastrointestinal complaints also reported more chronic insomnia as well—pointing to a clear connection between the two problems. Sleep issues have been linked to a wide range of digestive issues like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). People suffering from these problems are more likely to experience significantly prolonged sleep latency, more frequent sleep fragmentation, higher rates of sleeping pill use, decreased day-time energy, increased tiredness and overall poor sleep quality.

Despite the clear linkage between sleep and digestion, scientists are still unsure about the nature of the connection in terms of cause and effect. Which one is the source of the issue and which one is the result? The answer is still murky.

What we do know for sure is how sleep can impact the neurological mechanisms around eating. Over the years, research has shown that lack of sleep can prompt a decrease of the leptin in the body (the hormone that signals that you feel full) and an increase in ghrelin (which dulls the feeling of satisfaction you experience after eating). At the same time, poor sleep also has a negative impact on our brain’s ability to maintain impulse control—making it more difficult to avoid overly indulgent foods.

Now, newer theories are suggesting that this can create a never-ending cycle for some people. Poor sleep begets poor diet, which prompts more serious digestive tract issues, which then turns around and exacerbates the existing sleep issues—and the cycle starts all over again.

“There is no question in my mind that gut health is linked to sleep health, although we do not have the studies to prove it yet,” Dr. Michael Breus, clinical psychologist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told The Guardian. “Scientists investigating the relationship between sleep and the microbiome are finding that the microbial ecosystem may affect sleep and sleep-related physiological functions in a number of different ways: shifting circadian rhythms, altering the body’s sleep-wake cycle, affecting hormones that regulate sleep and wakefulness.”

Another key factor at play here is mental health. Studies have shown that mood disorders like depression and anxiety can be exacerbated by poor sleep, while at the same time being contributing factors to insomnia. This becomes even more interesting, as more research has come out linking these disorders to the same gut and gastrointestinal problems that may also be affecting your sleep. More and more, it appears that all three of these issues may have a layered and reciprocal relationship with one another.

While the connections between sleep, digestion and mental health may seem like one big, never-ending Catch-22 of a problem—it doesn’t have to be. Simply taking the time to understand this relationship more deeply doesn’t mean accepting it as a dead-end. Addressing these issues requires a delicate balance; it will likely take a little bit of trial and error and a whole lot of patience to really get it right.

So what can you do about it?

Eliminate Other Possibilities By Updating Your Bedroom Environment

It’s clear that there are a lot of different factors that can be affecting your ability to get quality sleep—some more complicated than others. The first step to improving your sleep should be eliminating the easiest-to-address possibilities. Does your mattress not provide the proper support? Do you get overheated during the night? Is your room too bright or too noisy? All of these potential issues can be solved by investing a little bit of time in money into upgrading your bedroom environment: a new mattress, base, pillows, sheets, curtains, etc etc. Refreshing your bedding equipment may not immediately fix your sleep problems, but it will provide you with a clean slate from which you can better tackle the other factors may be affecting your sleep. Once you rule out all the other possibilities, poor sleep may actually be an indication that there is larger medical problem at play.

Re-Evaluate Your Daytime Food Choices

We’ve talked in the past about what kinds of foods you should avoid right before bed, but some research suggests that truly revamping your sleep may require you to consider all of your food choices throughout the entire day. This is where the trial-and-error may really come into play. Start by introducing more anti-inflammatory foods like green leafy vegetables and fatty fish into your meals, and slowly start limiting things like fried foods, red meat and soda. Remember: overhauling your entire food habits can be really difficult and the process can at times be demoralizing. Start small and give yourself enough time to really track your progress. When you can actually see and feel the impact of these changes, it makes it easier to keep going.

Introduce More Probiotics & Prebiotics Into Your Diet

As part of switching up your diet, consider introducing both probiotics and prebiotics into your daily routine. A probiotic is a type of live bacteria (which exists in supplement form or in fermented foods like sauerkraut, Kefir and Kombucha) that has been shown to have a positive impact on gut health. Similarly, prebiotics (which mainly come in the form of non-digestible fiber carbohydrates like chicory root, garlic and asparagus) have also been shown to have a positive effect on the quality of non-REM and REM sleep. While they won’t be a cure-all or an excuse to keep eating poorly, they can play a big part of improving your overall sleep health.

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